Poll: Gingrich leads in Ga. but voters doubt him

The poll of likely Republican voters found that 38 percent are ready to vote for Gingrich on Super Tuesday; Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are virtually tied for second, with Romney favored by 24 percent and Santorum by 22 percent. Only 3 percent said they plan to vote for Ron Paul, and another 12 percent were undecided.

In spite of Gingrich’s top showing, 39 percent of respondents said they thought Romney had the best chance of defeating Obama. Only 30 percent chose Gingrich, and just 12 percent chose Santorum.

“I want somebody that is going to get Obama out,” said Romney supporter Jean Williams, 80, a retired teacher in Alpharetta. “Newt Gingrich, I think, is the smartest of the whole crew — but I think he has too much baggage, he’s made too many enemies. I would love to support him but I don’t feel he’s going to do it.”

Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist and former Republican strategist, said electability has been Romney’s strength through the entire campaign.

“The main argument for Romney is that he’s someone who can appeal to independent voters and perhaps women voters and win in November,” Swint said. “They’re voting for Romney not because they’re really looking forward to a President Romney, but they think he can win.”

Gingrich spokeswoman Susan Meyers said the poll reflects Georgians’ trust in the man who represented the state in Congress for two decades and who has spent the better part of the past week campaigning here.

“It shows he is the only candidate in this race who understands economics and how the Obama economy is hurting consumers,” Meyers said. “We expect Super Tuesday to be a super day for Newt and his supporters.”

Gingrich’s victory in the state is nearly assured, said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll for the AJC. The real fight will be for second place, Coker said — an important battle not just for momentum, but in the all-important scramble for delegates. The outcome, he said, could hinge on the undecideds.

When Mason-Dixon polled Georgia in early February, 9 percent were undecided. The fact that figure appears to have increased during the past month shows voters giving Santorum a second look, Coker said. (The margin of error for both polls was 4 percent, and the increase in undecided voters falls within that margin.)

“Now you have people choosing between Romney and Santorum,” Coker said. “People still undecided are really, really paying attention now and really pondering how they’re going to go.”

Romney will visit Gwinnett County today — a free pancake brunch at Brookwood High School in Snellville — to convince those undecideds that he’s their best option.

“We’ve been optimistic all along that we would be winning delegates out of Georgia,” said Gabriel Sterling, a member of the Sandy Springs City Council and a top Romney supporter. “We always fight to win every state, but if we can come in second statewide, pick up a couple congressional districts, finish second in others, we will come out of here with a good group of delegates.”

Electability is a strong driver of Romney voters, the poll found.

Asked whether they chose a candidate based on shared beliefs versus a candidate who would have the best chance of becoming president, 80 percent of Romney’s supporters said the latter. That compares to 55 percent of Gingrich’s voters who chose him because they believe he can beat Obama. Santorum and Paul’s supporters, meanwhile, more often said they chose based on compatibility on issues, not on electability.

Sarah Bell of Atlanta said she’s with Santorum even though she isn’t sure he can beat Obama. Bell, 28, who homeschools her three children, said she’s hopeful Santorum can win in November.

“I would think people could see that Obama couldn’t follow through on many of his promises,” Bell said, adding she supports Santorum’s pro-life stance and consistency.

Santorum, Bell said, “doesn’t go with the change of wind things, he seems pretty strong and it doesn’t matter to him if he offends people.”

While Gingrich has a clear lead here, the race for second is close. Romney and Santorum must hope to stay above 20 percent in Georgia because of the state’s new rules for awarding delegates. Any candidate who gets at least 20 percent of the statewide vote will be awarded a share of 34 at-large delegates to the national convention in Tampa this summer. Forty-two delegates will be awarded based on the vote by congressional district.

Santorum and Romney supporters now must focus on turnout, rallying their bases and hoping the undecideds break their way.

“We have a final push going on the phones and hope to convince voters, especially women, that Santorum has been targeted and mischaracterized by the left on his positions,” said Santorum supporter Tim Echols, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Gingrich has said he has to win his former home state to remain a viable candidate. To make sure that happens, Gingrich spent Tuesday through Saturday here on a statewide bus tour that took him from Dalton to Savannah.

The other campaigns took pleasure in noting that Gingrich’s slipping fortunes elsewhere forced him to guard his home turf.

“Santorum had been surging in Georgia before Newt camped out here and Romney started spending a small fortune on TV,” Echols said.

Romney supporters noted that Gingrich’s support here dropped from the February AJC poll that had him with 42 percent.

“Newt’s decline in the recent poll after spending the past week or so traveling the state, coupled with his lackluster results in Arizona and Michigan, is looking like he may have just concluded his farewell tour across Georgia,” said Romney supporter Eric Tanenblatt, a managing director at McKenna Long.

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said a Gingrich win in Georgia might not be enough.

“A win in Georgia doesn’t by itself really help him that much,” Abramowitz said. “Obviously, it’s better than losing in Georgia. If he wins Georgia even by a pretty good margin but does poorly everywhere else, it makes it pretty difficult for him.”

Gingrich does not have a lead in any other Super Tuesday state, although he appears within striking distance in Tennessee.

His campaign, in an apparent attempt to preempt any talk of his leaving the race, issued a schedule for post-Super Tuesday that has him visiting Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas.

Tammy Combs of Jasper hopes Gingrich stays in the race.

“He’s the best one we’ve got,” said Combs, 48. “I don’t like the other ones. They’re phony. He’s the lesser of all the evils.”

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